by: Richard Thompson Updated:
Robbers, rapists and killers who abused their bodies while on the street are now racking up millions in medical bills behind bars.
Privacy laws prevent county jails from revealing who is getting treatment and how much it’s costing you.
KIRO 7 Eyewitness News Investigates the high cost of caring for inmates.
"I'm terribly sorry, it was stupid.” That’s the explanation 67-year-old Miles Messinger gave a judge for robbing a bank in Shelton earlier this year.
It was January 4 when Messinger put a towel on his head with two holes cut out for his eyes and walked into the Key Bank in downtown Shelton.
Messinger told tellers he had box with a bomb in it and demanded money. He got just $2,500 from tellers and then walked out to his truck and got into the vehicle. He was sitting inside when officers arrived and took him into custody.
Days later, Messinger was in the hospital getting heart surgery that cost taxpayers more than $137,000. Mason County jailers told KIRO 7 Messinger that said he robbed the bank so he could get medical care.
“Oh bulls__t,” Messinger told KIRO 7 in an interview. Messinger denies he robbed the bank for free medical care, but he also makes no apologies for the big bill dumped in taxpayers' laps, saying “That is not my problem. That ain’t my problem.”
Treating inmates is a legal requirement costing counties and cities millions of dollars. A KIRO 7 investigation shows King County spends $27 million a year on inmate health care, Snohomish spends $5 million and Pierce County has $8 million budgeted for inmate care this year.
"No matter your crime, you are a human being. No human being should be in pain or left to suffer things.” That’s what accused robber Dejuan Allen said as he was being treated for MRSA inside the Pierce County Jail clinic.
Thirty inmates a day are treated in the Pierce County Jail. There's a full time doctor, an X-ray machine, a room for minor surgical procedures and even a dentist office. Inmate Allen has no complaints saying, “The care is sufficient.”
The millions spent on that care is part of the reason the top floor of the Pierce County Jail is closed. Cells that could hold 320 inmates are empty because there's not enough money to supervise those inmates.
"There are people who probably should be in jail in this county who aren’t in jail,” said Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor.
The KIRO 7 Investigation shows some inmates go to extraordinary lengths to maximize their medical care in jail. One Pierce county inmate with cancer was sentenced to three days in jail and community service, but she refused to do the community service so she could serve her full 120-day sentence and receive cancer treatment.
“She wanted to get chemotherapy,” said Pastor.
The highest costs for cities and counties come when inmates like accused rapist Leo Bunker have to go to the hospital.
KIRO 7 has learned Bunker is being treated for throat and thyroid cancer. The bills for his treatment are already $250,000, three times the county's yearly budget for all inmate hospital care.
Bunker told KIRO 7 society might not like it, but there are limited choices when it comes to inmate care.
“What are you supposed to do? Let me die or fix me, I guess,” said Bunker.
Grays Harbor Sheriff Rick Scott told KIRO 7 one inmate at the beginning of this year wiped out his entire $236,000 hospital budget. Privacy laws prevented the sheriff from telling KIRO 7 about the inmate, but KIRO 7 investigated and determined an inmate named Calvin Lillie, who was convicted for domestic violence, had a nearly $250,000 medical bill.
The sheriff said the costs are threatening his ability to put enough deputies on the street and could ultimately impact who gets charged for crimes.
“People are going to have to evaluate, can we afford to prosecute this person who has such a serious pre-existing medical condition for a felony crime because, is it worth it?” said Scott.
Sheriff Scott said it’s terribly frustrating to watch people in his community who can’t afford to take care of their own health problems, but they are paying the bill for inmates.
“There’s elderly people on fixed incomes who can’t afford medical care and have to miss meals so they can pay for their prescriptions, but I’ve got guys in jail who have committed serious crimes against children and other people who are getting 100 percent of their medical needs met 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It’s not fair, and society needs to look at how we are spending these tax dollars,” said Scott.